My individual, group instruction and retreat teachings are all dana based. Dana (pronounced donna) is a Buddhist terms that means giving, or generosity. It is one of the foundations of spiritual life. Dana includes all manner of giving and generosity, but here, I am referring specifically to the traditional acts of generosity by which students support their spiritual mentors, either financially or by means of service.
However, an odd idea exists in western culture that if a program is about spirituality it should cost nothing, and if someone presents themselves as a spiritual teacher asking for donations, then we suspect insincerity. But this uninformed outlook does not adequately value the nature of the teacher’s work, the years of training behind it and the level of responsibility it demands. The teacher’s needs are like anyone else’s: to pay their rent and healthcare bills, fix their cars, buy food and put aside something for retirement. If spiritual mentors are not adequately supported by their students, then they have to get jobs, which means much less availability for teaching. Students need to understand that they have a responsibility in this matter. No spiritual tradition teaches taking without giving back. Sometimes students will contribute amounts that would place a teacher’s average earnings below minimum wage. If a student’s idea of generosity is something less than their own hourly wage, they should ask themselves the following question: “Do I value my teacher’s time less than my own? If so, what am I doing here?”
Of course, even where students appropriately value their teacher’s time, the realities of our lives often place us in situations where our own wages barely suffice to keep our chins above financial water. For these reasons, the teacher must not allow a student’s financial difficulties to become an obstacle and should be ready to take them on regardless of their ability to offer support. Those in financial distress must be made to feel fully welcome without any embarrassment. Any mentor in spiritual matters who will not provide guidance for those struggling with poverty should be regarded with suspicion.
Some teachers have decided to solve these problems by charging a fee, usually in the form of a sliding scale hourly rate. So far, I continue to resist this trend. The teachers who have been the source of these teachings never charged a fee. When spiritual guidance is payed for it becomes another consumer commodity, desacralized and proprietary. In this not only the spirit of generosity is lost, but what should be a selfless and loving relationship becomes a business transaction.